The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 24: Separation

Saar left the room, scoffing: "Just when I wondered how senseless prophecy could become, this Oracle didn't disappoint me."

Nikkum was the last of the group to exit the house. He was a man who had always laughed off the superstitious and the ominous. His faith in the divine was so low that he had always paid fortune tellers with a good flurry of punches. And yet, his heart wavered upon hearing the revealing words. He had this strange feeling that, in spite of his aged and senile appearance, the Oracle had the right words about everyone including himself. He was incapable to fathom the true meaning of the last sentence, but deep inside he thought he knew the answer. His fingers subconsciously pinched a tiny purple crystal around his neck, a Charm quite peculiar among the array of other tribal teeth.

Despite watching his fellow travelers move off, his feet were nailed down to the doorstep. Through his straw sandals he could perfectly feel the coldness of the stone and the suffocation of wild flowers. He had no excuse to stay, yet even fewer reasons not to follow. As an eternal traveler of abandoned lands, he ignored destinations; as an imprisoned wanderer of lost time, he loathed fate. His mind was definitely acting strange, as he could not conceive why he was not leaving. One step was enough, one step would bump the stalled wheel of the inevitable into turning again.

He gazed upon the crimson sky. During this time of sunset, shapeless clouds were running wild like gray smoke along flames of a dying fire. One could ask himself what war the Old Gods were waging high above, yet all that humans could do was to hopelessly watch in silence and wait for the unavoidable outcome. No matter how the blazing fireball struggled, the night would fall and the shadow would descend. But there is another truth, like ice cannot stay cold forever, the shadow is also bound to disperse. Then birds will sing and the dusk will come again. The world is made of the recurring and the everlasting, what changed was only human hearts.

Then, why seek balance if man can never stay still?

Nikkum witnessed the orange sun being quickly devoured by the darkness, and as the last drop of radiance ran dry, another ruthless fight was about to begin. Nocturnal predators would start their hunt and their trembling prey would fight to eke out another night of survival. Nikkum let the purple crystal go and eventually made his first step into the shadows. The young man in black cloak had not been waiting for him, as he did not need to. Nikkum was drawn to this flipping blackness, making his way toward the only thing darker than the night.

"Nikkum? Are you following?" As Lily waved, her white robe suddenly replaced the black cloak as the warrior's guide.

"I can't miss your leftovers!" Nikkum was indeed marching on a path strewn with discarded petals.

"Saar said we are heading to Eclis!" Lily had this vibrant voice that would scare any night animals away.

"I know!" Nikkum had to raise his voice too because of the distance.

"Catch up fast, I have two sulking men next to me! It's annoying!" The lack of tact was one of Lily's strong points, as it sort of solved any awkward situation.

"Then stop walking with them!" Nikkum regretted these words as soon as he saw Lily stop with a pout to let him catch up with her.

However, as he closed, he realized that the look on her face did not match the tone of her voice. Her eyes became wet and her voice started shaking as she whispered "They couldn't be saved..."

"Who? You mean the two guys back there? Well they kinda looked like they were feeling much better after you helped them!". Nikkum couldn't imagine what was going through her head.

"You don't understand... that cure was a Blacknerve mixture...I fed 'em poison!" That last high-pitched wail of the lady was filled with so much desperation that nearby trees shed several leaves as though they were agonizing with her.

Seeing the approaching huge body of the warrior, the fragile lady could no longer hold back. With the speed of a bird, she plunged herself into Nikkum's chest, her precious tears flowing out like a mountain spring. That was the last thing the clumsy warrior would expect, as he held up his hands, so frightened to touch the glass lady before him. Hearing the shriek, the other two men looked back, astounded as well.

"I fed poison to dying men..." The princess murmured, collapsing both inside and outside
.
Nikkum was completely baffled. As his eyes hopelessly reached out to Saar, the young wizard coldly abandoned the warrior and resumed his walk.

"You were the one who talked to her." Saar threw back contemptuously.

"What do I do now?" Nikkum was certainly not feigning cluelessness.

"Deal with it." Saar was immeasurably cruel at times.

As Lily seemed unwilling to stop sobbing or to let go, the bear had to beg help from the last and only man available. Celius had much to say before the incident, but he was waiting for the right moment to ask for clarification from his party. He had sworn to absorb any unfairness dealt to him and to return it with grace, and yet he was a man after all, made of flesh and born from the earth. He had tolerated a number of wrong things this day, way too many for him to stay impervious. However, when the hardened belief on the knight's mind met the pure sincerity in the damsel's tears, Celius could not help but decide to endure yet another trial of will.

"Nikkum, please stay with her for a moment, she needs it." Celius said in a soothing voice.
"Like this?" The warrior still did not know where to put his hands.

"A little while will do." assured Celius.

"Isn't this your job? Haven't you even received training for this, like when you were in your noble family?" Nikkum was hoping someone would take over.

"Not quite. But it's basic human interaction." Any knight would have handled Lily in a better way.

"I'm so sorry I don't know how to interact with 'humans'." Nikkum's marked irony on the last word clearly stated he was far from capable of handling the unstable matter before him.

"It'll be over soon." Celius' comfort did not make the warrior feel any better.

Suddenly, Lily pushed away the colossal mass, weeping: "It's over. I'm feeling fine. Go away now, Nikkum."

Nikkum was confused whether or not to get angry because of the rude treatment, but still he was able to relax his hands: "That's quick."

"I can cling to you and cry all night if you want." Lily was recovering, "And you know I'm able to."

Nikkum rapidly shook his head in denial.

Despite having said her previous words, the lady slightly blushed and started to run to catch up with the one who was leading the way: "Wait up, Saar!"

The young man barely looked back: "You can play your game of caprice as long as you want, but I have to reach Eclis as soon as possible."

Lily protested: "Do you want to camp on the icy rocks of Eclis instead? Grasses here have at least some warmth."

Saar ignored the fact: "I don't care."

Lily, who had completely wiped away her tears, objected strongly: "Well, I care! Outside of the underground city, the region of Eclis is barely inhabitable. The land is said to steal away your spirit while you sleep."

Saar flouted: "Blatant nonsense."

Celius approached, helping the lady out: "She's right, Saar. It's wiser not to cross the border at night. If we rest up, we can move faster tomorrow."

"Rest up!" Saar abruptly turned back, marching up to the guard, "Do you have any idea how much time I've lost because of Duriuk, that crook doctor, and all of you!"

"I'm simply stating the best option for us. By the way, I don't even understand why you are in such a predicament that you had to harm an innocent villager." Celius was serious as well, and unintentionally divulged the burden on his mind.

"Would you have wanted me to bargain with him? 'twenty pieces of gold, let Karya see our man first'?" Saar was undoubtedly nettled, especially after being provoked by his own bodyguard.

"I didn't say that. I just thought you were more a man of word than a man of violence." Celius' opinion was about to differ.

"I did what I had to do, even if the outcome was not perfect."

"Was all of this only about the Shards of Eternity?" Celius' keen question hit the mark.

All of sudden, Saar hesitated as if he remembered something important. Then his voice became softer: "Well, mostly. These things are important, and they should not remain in the wrong hands."

"I have never seen one, and I have always thought they were imaginary inventions in folktales. I don't even remember if there are any exact records of the Shards of Eternity." Celius could not be blamed for not knowing details of one of the most secretive objects in learned circles, but he had certainly heard of them thanks to his early years of refined education.

"You don't need to know. You can look at this as a little hobby of a devoted scholar." Saar tried to wrap up the story faster than he did with Nikkum.

"It'd be good if I can learn some. All right, tell me when you feel like sharing." Celius definitely saw through the young man's intention to conceal, so he went back to the original topic, "Still, are you certain you want to keep on moving in the dark?"

"It's up to you to follow." The stubborn wizard was firm on his choice, even realizing perfectly well it was hardly a logical idea.

Nikkum finally chimed in, with this tantalizing expression: "Let him go, Celius. I'm confident we'll catch up with him tomorrow. He's been walking for the whole day, he can't get far with that weak body of his."

Irritated, Saar glared at the warrior without speaking, then walked off.

Celius hesitated: "Are you sure of this?"

Nikkum let out an almost triumphant laugh: "I can smell his frustration miles away, trust me."

Lily was certainly feeling better: "That's the only good point about mongrels."

For the first time, Nikkum was not angry at being compared to some filthy beast: "And who hugged this lowly animal minutes ago?"

The princess had not thought of an excuse yet, so retreated in an unusual silence.

Meanwhile, the bodyguard looked after his master with a reluctant gaze, then finally decided to trust the beast's sense: "I think you're right, Nikkum. He can't get far if he travels at night, and there are few paths to Eclis because of the huge land cracks, we'll meet him again eventually."

"That's if he doesn't teleport over cracks." Nikkum giggled.

"You mean that he has a teleport scroll to Eclis? Why didn't we use that earlier then?" Celius sounded shocked.

"No, I haven’t seen him use items. He just casts a spell and teleports around."

"Wait, you mean he is able to move to places that have not been marked by a teleport beacon? And that he's casting the spell himself and alone?" The knight's shock turned into amazement.

"Yep, he did that a couple of times. Lily's seen that too." After getting used to the magic, Nikkum thought of it as a common spell.

"As far as I know, real teleportation is one of the ancient spells that only the most genius magi in Zeal have mastered. You are not taught of this over years, you have to spend your lifetime seeking it. I don't think I've met anyone who's capable of this." Celius was now perplexed.

"Well, you met Saar, and he's one of those 'genius guys'." Nikkum was having a hard time fathoming where the knight's astonishment came from.

"As a melee Charm user, you don't understand. He has to be strongly affiliated to the earth rune to even have a grasp on the spell, and he's so young..." Celius was mostly talking to himself.

"I've not seen Saar use a lot of earth spells. The fire attack he used in Zeal was far more impressive. He called that 'Blazing Phoenix' or something." Nikkum clearly remembered the smell of charred flesh around him when Saar first made his appearance.

"Blazing Phoenix! The Blazing Phoenix? That spell is supposed to be so powerful that it is near impossible to entrap into a charm. A few renowned Pyromaniacs are known to have managed that feat, but the charm only lasted a few months before breaking. How could he have found such a charm? Let alone use it!" Celius was caught in an endless spiral of questions.

"Ask him yourself." Getting bored of his antagonist's overreaction to everything he said, Nikkum switched the topic: "Are we going to camp here or not?"

"Ah, a little further should do it, we're still in the village's neighborhood." Celius unmistakably tried to prevent any unnecessary conflicts they might have.

"You're being too cautious Celius." Nikkum saw no light anywhere.

"They hired mercenaries to go after Doctor Karya after all." Celius looked like he was still concerned about the damsel on the cliff.

"Still calling her a doctor? She has more ways to defend herself than you think, even though I admit nowadays wandering mercenaries tend to travel from village to village to do any dirty work." Nikkum sounded like he had been one in the past.

"Everyone should have their chance to explain and justify their wrong doings, even those that seem the most evil." Celius' heart was always filled with righteousness.

"We did wrong, we suffer." Nikkum had a simpler mind, "Tell those philosophical things to Saar next time, he has more ability to argue than me for sure."

Beginning to feel lonely, Lily chimed in: "Ho, are we stopping here or not? We aren't chasing that brat at night, right?"

"We're setting a camp up here, my princess." Nikkum decided they were in an area safe enough to stop. That was for other commoners' safety, obviously.

A small campfire flared up in the middle of the darkness, bringing a fraction of warmth to this abandoned land. Under the moonless sky, little nocturnal creatures enjoyed the darkness which was hiding them away, protecting them from their natural enemies. They were no longer afraid to come out, bathing in the fresh air of the night. To most of them, as long as the sun dominated, the world was a place filled with blazing heat and life-threatening danger. Like humans cannot live without light, these humble monsters stay in inches of shadow and feed on driblets of the darkness. They are usually harmless even to careless travelers, since as much as men fear Shadowspawn, they are frightened by humans. However, fear seems to not be such an antonym to curiosity, since a few of them slowly sneaked on to the rocks near the travelers' abode, and watched the strangers with interested eyes.

The fire was not burning well, the flame tongues panting like an exhausted dog in summer. Every now and then, it tried to lick the wood sticks to revive itself with a strenuous burst, only to quickly fade away due to the lamentation of the surrounding men. The group hardly spoke after settling down, and even the over-excited princess had her moment of peace. Celius was sitting next to a large stone, his back leaning against the cold object and his eyes closed as if meditating over the words to say to the young wizard the next day. Nikkum was also on the ground, his hands pressed against the soil behind his back, supporting his weighty body. The warrior was gazing into the night, searching for something not there. Their silence was bothering no one but the night creatures, whose eyes shined in attention, like children begging for a sweet story before their much needed sleep. Sometimes, the wind made a rustling sound while hovering over the dwarf grass, inviting the travelers to share their adventures.

"Nikkum, still awake?" Asked Lily in an unusually tender voice.

"Can't you see I'm sitting?" Nikkum's reply was more harsh.

"I don't know, Celius is sitting too, but he seems to be asleep." Lily glanced at the bodyguard who showed no sign of moving.

"You can count on him to jump up if any villain dares to approach our princess." Nikkum guessed mindlessly.

"Say..." Lily had a surprisingly calm tone this night, "Can I ask you a question?"

"Shoot it." Nikkum was not moving his eyes from the sky, "But I don't guarantee I'll answer."

Lily paused for a second, then finally made up her mind: "How come you knew my mother?"